Am I an Hegelian? (Hint: no)

This post began as a response to Julia Thornton’s brief comment on a previous post in which I outed myself as a fan of the philosopher Hegel, directing me to a site where Hegelians roamed free. It’s an interesting thing what we make of what we learn at uni – and to some extent maintain beyond it with a bit of reading. Outside one’s field, one can’t take too deep an interest in a particular area – or it’s practically very hard. So what does one take into life outside the field one might follow? An ossified set of propositions from some old codger. Well perhaps. For me anyway, I can say that my study of Hegel helped shape a few important things about my intellectual orientation to things.

I doubt it really changed me (for good or ill, these things are largely temperamental I suspect) but it gave me a bit of a vocabulary to express some things. And as I said in the comment to Julia, “the thing is, I’m not a Hegelian. I’m not an anything much.”

I think Hegel is the most amazing, eye-opening philosopher I’ve ever come across, and I think of his ideas a lot, but I don’t think they create a program for anything much – or at least not for me. My own idea of philosophy is that it’s a kind of ‘rhetoric of epistemology’. If, as is likely that means nothing to you I’ll try to explain – though who knows how I’ll go, it’s quite tricky to explain.

Since we don’t have a clue what makes up the world, or how we should think, the thing I love about Hegel is that he reinvents the world in a fabulously rich way. I divide philosophy and those who discuss philosophy into two camps. The first lot fancy themselves as devilishly commonsensical and they’re forever lecturing us that if only we could jolly well sort ourselves out, then we could cure the world of all known diseases march down the road to truth, principally by eliminating error.

Logical Positivism was in this tradition. And, in reinventing ‘Hume’s fork’ – in saying that something was either falsifiable or meaningless metaphysics – they didn’t quite account for the fact that this linchpin of their system, their criterion of meaningfulness itself was unfalsifiable and therefore (presumably) meaningless. To me Logical Positivism is the philosophical equivalent of the Titanic – the unsinkable ship, sinking on its maiden voyage. Richard Dawkins – purveyor du jour of schoolboy atheism – is the amateur philosopher in this mould, unaware of his own capacious ignorance of the very topic on which he writes whole books. I call this philosophy as ‘metaphysics by default’. The practitioners do metaphysics but are unaware of the fact, thinking it’s commonsense. In this sense they are deliciously unphilosophical, but blissfully unaware of it as they troop on through the undergrowth, pith helmets firmly strapped to their chins.

In this world of thought, categories like ‘matter’ or (though this is a bit out of fashion) ‘mind’ lurk either explicitly acknowledged or as implicitly fundamental categories on which thought gets built. But no-one has got the foggiest clue what ‘matter’ or ‘mind’ really are. (Paradoxically they’ve got a pretty good idea of what ‘mind’ is because they experience it from the inside, but they can’t escape the subjectivity of that experience. As for matter, well, even as a scientific endeavour, the more we look into it the more its intelligibility recedes from us. It gets curiouser and curiouser.)

My own personal conclusion from this is, as I’ve suggested on this blog before, is that if we go looking for foundations for our thought, we end up in fictions. It’s best we acknowledge that and since they’re fictive, we get the opportunity to make up fertile fictions – fictions which will help us think in a fruitful way rather than just lead us to rehearse what seems obvious to our senses (but which is in fact the quite arbitrary artefact of our intuitions as beings which inhabit a largely ‘Newtoninan’ world between galactic and atomic scales.)

Hegel of course is consciously anti-foundational. And he does a phenomenal job of that (oops on a re-read I just realised that’s a pun – which I’ll stick with). Picking up The Phenomenology of Spirit and starting at the Prologue is a giddying experience. It explains that it’s not really a prologue, that it can’t really set out its argument in advance, that a later argument disagreeing with an earlier argument does not refute it, any more than the flower refutes the bud from which it has grown.

But, though it does some violence to his language and thought, you could put it differently so as to juxtapose what I’ve called ‘metaphysics by default’ with Hegel’s approach – which I’d call ‘metaphysics by design’. You’d say that Hegel’s ‘foundation’ is that the world is the emanation of ‘spirit’, which of course his philosophy is then consumed in dramatising.

What is ‘spirit’? Well, who knows? But then remember, no-one escapes from the ridiculousness of opening their mouth. Certainly not materialists. We have no idea what ‘matter’ is, nor ‘mind’ except in a hopelessly impossible to communicate subjectivity. And it turns out that, in Hegel’s hands, his fictions acquire a coherence and a power as one comes to understand how he explicates it. It really does give you new eyes with which to see the world. And so one’s understanding of one’s human situation is built up from a fertile fiction, rather than deduced from a lifeless and obvious fact, which, on a little serious thought turns out to be made up – that we and the universe of which we are a part are made of ‘matter’ – whatever that is. Oh – and space and extension – whatever they are.

But to be an Hegelian one would presumably buy into Hegel’s schema in some committed way – one would accept some Hegelian dogma. I’m afraid that while I think of Hegel’s system as the most brilliant piece of fictive foundations or protocols for epistemology and ontology I’ve encountered, that’s all it is. A particular and incredibly fertile endeavour by one of the great philosophers of all time.

My sympathy for religion, which I suspect mystifies and irritates a few Troppodillians, is made of the same stuff. Religion is built on fictive foundations which are a human construct (fictive foundations on which many modern, and some less modern believers understand to be a human construct). And yet, as with Hegel’s system, and unlike more mundane ‘materialist’ understandings of the universe, the strangeness of the fictive foundations of religion are an invitation to continual renewal in helping us interpret our changing experience in the world.

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14 Responses to Am I an Hegelian? (Hint: no)

  1. Antonios says:

    You’re not a Hegelian because it sounds like you’re more an Pragmatist or a Quinean.

    You might like John Dewey, who is a Pragmatist heavily influenced by Hegel and an avowed anti-foundationalist, but not the guy who invented the Dewey Decimal System (that was Melvil Dewey — who was not only a segregator of non-fiction books, but a racist segregator of people too).

  2. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Yep – pragmatist, that’s me. The one post-Hegelian philosophical system that’s pretty low key and commonsensical. I should have said that in the post.

    I’m a big fan of Dewey. (And Peirce though he’s a bit over my head.)

    I never quite understood why we needed Popper’s theory of science after the pragmatists. Peter Singer has a good article arguing that Popper’s intolerance of Hegel was kind of odd given that Popper’s and Hegel’s theories of science are pretty similar.

  3. Julia says:

    So I wonder what an actual Hegelian would look like? Presumably as beset by cognitive dissonance as the rest of us. Accepting a philosophical position does not necessarily mean to be dogmatic. It can also mean subscribing to an orientation. While this observation runs the risk of repeating many of the arguments already run in the Troppo post of May 26th on Belief
    I think how we think about things is at least as important if not more important than what we think.
    Habermas held that there were only three possible ‘hows’, technical practical and emancipatory. (I think he might have been borrowing from Aristotle). To my mind there might be a fourth which is something like ‘understanding’ (the sociological verstehende). This is not a direct intersection between thinking and how things happen which Habermas’s three are, but a way of standing back and going Ah, which precedes these three. Being aware that one is first of all orienting oneself is a good idea. Knowing that that initial orientation is not specifically logical helps. For example, how do we choose what to pay attention to? Is there a ‘positivist’ way to choose a problem to work on? You might if you were a positivist say ‘I looked through all the journals and decided that this issue had not been dealt with’, but is there an actual logical methodology for deciding it is ‘interesting’ and not just absent?

    Further, can we get away from “fictive” foundational thinking as a basis for subsequent interpretation? Whether it is religion, fundamentalist atheism, (Dawkins) or ism’s like Marxism, feminism, free market economics, public choice theory-ism and so on, or non ideological beliefs – eg from the May 26th blog comments – that we remain the same person from one year to the next; I think not. We are constrained by a need for internal coherence which keeps the content of belief systems relatively tidy and a preference for excluded middles which keeps them relatively separate. There is a bit of a space premium caused by limitations on working memory (See ‘The Magical Number Seven Plus or Minus Two‘ a ground breaker) which means that beliefs are compressions, but not of “information” unless you subscribe to the computer analogy for brains. They are compressions of lived experience and interpretations of those lived experiences, our own, and those received from around us. They are the “frame” of our lifeworld. Stephen Rose (The Making of Memory) points out that emotion makes memory stronger (p 331) which helps explain some aspects of the gritty determination of the dogmatic, and he also emphasises the phenomenological quality, the subjective reality of recollection.

    “For to remember is much more than simply to extract a file from a computer store. It is in its dictionary meaning to ‘bring to mind’, to ‘think of again’, ‘to recollect’, terms which….suggest a connecting and assembling, a bringing together of things in relation to each other.”

    (p377) It is the quality of recollection necessarily being of ‘things in relation to each other’ that for me makes beliefs, ideologies, paradigms or foundational thinking – all the same thing really – unavoidable.
    And I think there is some point in your philosophy making you who you are. Paying attention to what you believe and knowing it is a belief and refining it and using it as an ethical basis even if the philosophy is ‘understanding’ makes you more coherent and trustworthy to yourself and to those around you.

  4. Julia says:

    PS Re accompanying picture of Hegel; that’s what I wear when I am writing!

  5. Nicholas Gruen says:

    I just found a nice quote by Martin Amis, addressed admiringly but in remonstrance to his friend, the militant atheist Christopher Hitchins.

    The atheistic position merits an adjective that no one would dream of applying to you: it is lenten. And agnosticism, I respectfully suggest, is a slightly more logical and decorous response to our situation – to the indecipherable grandeur of what is now being (hesitantly) called the multiverse. The science of cosmology is an awesome construct, while remaining embarrassingly incomplete and approximate; and over the last 30 years it has garnered little but a series of humiliations. So when I hear a man declare himself to be an atheist, I sometimes think of the enterprising termite who, while continuing to go about his tasks, declares himself to be an individualist. It cannot be altogether frivolous or wishful to talk of a “higher intelligence” – because the cosmos is itself a higher intelligence, in the simple sense that we do not and cannot understand it.

    • David Walker says:

      “The cosmos is itself a higher intelligence, in the simple sense that we do not and cannot understand it.”

      It seems to me the sure sign of a philosophical bullshitter is that in order to close their argument satisfactorily, they have to give perfectly useful terms like “higher intelligence” a new and useless sense.

    • David Walker says:

      Just to clarify, the bullshitter is Amis, not Nick.

  6. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Note: this from Kevin Kelly is a ‘scientific’ appreciation of anti-foundationalism

    Necessary Paradox – At the foundation of every loop of self-causation is a paradox. Where does it come from? From itself, but where does that come from? Which came first, Z or A? What is the cause and what is the effect? These and a thousand more quandaries are the necessary paradoxes of upcreation. The ultimate questions of origin are muddled. Cause and effect, shunted aside. Life is the cause of DNA. Consciousness is the cause of the brain. Technology is the cause of humans. With each upcreation a new set of paradoxes are generated, each of them strange and unanswerable, but necessary.

    There are obvious limits to these definitions, analogies, and metaphors. Some of these concepts overlap, while others are clearly limited in their application. For example, certain metals exhibit emergence, in the form of superconductivity, without spawning self-organization. Self-organization itself does not promise upcreation. Proteins self-organize when they fold; membranes, lipid bilayers, colloidal crystals and some reaction-diffusion chemical reactions all self-organize, but none of these examples raise the level of information. And there are huge gaps in explanation waiting to be bridged.

  7. paul walter says:

    Is this the Parmedian paradox being discussed.. that something cannot come of nothing, must always have been there yet where did it come from?

    It seems difficult for me to reconcile modern physics, even to do with energy/ matter interfacing, with it- doh!

  8. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Just ran into this quote from Georg Brandes (not, presumably a relation of our own philosopher in residence for the government) a nineteenth century philosopher about Hegel’s system:

    Again and again while reading Hegel’s works I felt carried away with delight at the new world of thought opening out before me. And when anything that for a long time had been incomprehensible to me, at last after tenacious reflection became clear, I felt what I myself called “an unspeakable bliss.” Hegel’s system of thought, anticipatory of experience, his German style, overburdened with arbitrarily constructed technical words from the year 1810 or so, which one might think would daunt a young student of another country and another age, only meant to me difficulties which it was a pleasure to overcome. Sometimes it was not Hegelianism itself that seemed the main thing. The main thing was that I was learning to know a world-embracing mind; I was being initiated into an attempt to comprehend the universe which was half wisdom and half poetry; I was obtaining an insight into a method which, if scientifically unsatisfying, and on that ground already abandoned by investigators, was fruitful and based upon a clever, ingenuous, highly intellectual conception of the essence of truth; I felt myself put to school to a great intellectual leader, and in this school I learnt to think.

  9. Well ..

    After reading through
    all the torturous stuff and nonsense above ..

    Let’s let Socrates have the last word . .

    “The only thing I now
    for sure
    is that I know nothing for sure .. “

  10. Nicholas Gruen says:

    The great Dewey’s first published paper was The Metaphysics of Materialism, which is well worth a read in this context.

  11. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Jordan Peterson raises a lot of similar issues – in his usual intense way – in this video which I recommend.

    Also, this is a terrific exploration of what I call metaphysics by default.

    Even the attempt to escape metaphysics is no sooner put in the form of a proposition than it is seen to involve highly significant metaphysical postulates. For this reason there is an exceedingly subtle and insidious danger in positivism [i.e. scientism]. If you cannot avoid metaphysics, what kind of metaphysics are you likely to cherish when you sturdily suppose yourself to be free from the abomination? Of course it goes without saying that in this case your metaphysics will be held uncritically because it is unconscious; moreover, it will be passed on to others far more readily than your other notions inasmuch as it will be propagated by insinuation rather than by direct argument… Now the history of mind reveals pretty clearly that the thinker who decries metaphysics… if he be a man engaged in any important inquiry, he must have a method, and he will be under a strong and constant temptation to make a metaphysics out of his method, that is, to suppose the universe ultimately of such a sort that his method must be appropriate and successful… But inasmuch as the positivist mind has failed to school itself in careful metaphysical thinking, its ventures at such points will be apt to appear pitiful, inadequate, or even fantastic.

  12. W Stewart says:

    Having defined the phrase, “metaphysics by default” differently, I can appreciate your use of the phrase, while seeing something else. Understandably, you see a certain “fiction” behind the metaphysical thoughts of logical positivists – and all others, without exception?

    But what do I see? As in the old essay, I see at least one useful approach to ontology of subjective continuity – a charged aspect of “metaphysics”. Arguably, the functional presentation required no fictive element; no suspension of disbelief, meaningless term, or mere poetry.

    This metaphysical reasoning is not entirely certain – what metaphysical reasoning is? – but I think it avoids such common failing of casual metaphysical text.

    I see this much in the essay, as do a few other authors and correspondents.

    What do you see?

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